The Last Picture Show

The optimist's guide to the Millennium's final fall-movie crop

Human concoctions that they are, movies have a flaky way of never quite living up to our expectations; whenever we look at what's screening around us, we see little to hosanna about. Practically since celluloid first hit light— or at least since a staffer at the moving picture world despairingly wrote in 1912 that Hollywood was "cutting off the feet" of its players, a harrowing downtrend that was steadily "getting worse"— critics have been whining that movies are in decline, and theirs is simply the worst of times. Some critics say little else; Pauline Kael even found cause to find the '70s, while she lived them, to be a New Low, which would be not spectacularly unlike Mike Lupica bemoaning the State of the Game as McGwire lallygags his way around third waving.

But hindsight lets you discern the cycles after the wailing has faded, not to mention appreciate the films in hypeless bliss. And that noise you've been hearing the past year or two isn't mere whoop-de-do— it's the splat of new American films, both corporate and indie, hitting the wall of our lowered expectations. Last year, more studio films made more tough critics' best-10s than we'd seen in decades. Ostensible blockbusters with promotional budgets equal to or exceeding production costs barely broke even. Stunningly, the studios rolled high, for whatever reasons, on bad (read: original and uncommercial), beautiful bets like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Truman Show, Bulworth, Pleasantville, Rushmore, The Butcher Boy, and The Thin Red Line. This year, amid a placid mediocrity spawned less by Hollywood's ordinary lemming-like habits than by filmmakers scaling back to an early-'70s grit and modesty (Payback, 8mm, True Crime, etc.), the Hyundai-priced Blair Witch Project (whose record-breaking profit-cost ratio hovers at about 2300 to 1) has bitch-smacked The Haunting, whose f/x budget and big-studio ad campaign ensure an eventual return of around zero. Generally, blockbusters are fewer in number and less likely to dominate the cultural consciousness (The Phantom Menace, for all its hundreds of millions, is a lingering blight, not an agent of future trends), and originality seems nearly as prized by audiences and producers as it is by weathered reviewers. Again and again, the can't-miss hype for expensive dung has backfired and low-budget freaks have sprouted up to fill the gaps. Something's afoot: it may not be an ascendancy or a renaissance, but the question's there to be asked— after so many years of despair, are American movies getting better?

Not quite a leadpipe cinch, you may say, but take the fall previews, which one usually eyeballs with the zeal reserved for identifying a corpse at the morgue. Proceed with bomb-squad caution, but there seem to be real reasons to look forward. Sure, there are the obligatory sensitive-bestseller Oscar bids (Snow Falling on Cedars, Angela's Ashes), the yearly Nora Ephron brain-scrub (Hanging Up), the big costume remake (Anna and the King), a self-serious Tom Hanks flick (Stephen King's The Green Mile), another Woody Allen (Sweet & Lowdown), another Oliver Stone riff (Any Given Sunday). The signs of life for Kevin Costner's latest baseball ego trip, For Love of the Game, aren't good, but it is directed by Sam Raimi, just as The Insider, a topical suspenser about that whole 60 Minutes­ tobacco industry squawk, seems watchable with Michael Mann behind the wheel.

At the same time, there's the raw, dependable pleasure to be had from a new Scorsese (Bringing Out the Dead, back on Gotham sod with Hell's Kitchen paramedics), a new Atom Egoyan (Felicia's Journey, from a William Trevor novel), a new Alan Rudolph (not so dependable, but it's Breakfast of Champions, with Willis, Nolte, and Albert Finney as Kilgore Trout), and a new Neil Jordan (less dependable still, but The End of the Affair is a quasi-cosmic Blitz-romance based on Graham Greene). Better yet, Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow is as close to a pop-movie dream-mating of director and classic material as you could hope for (when is Cronenberg going to get around to The Metamorphosis?), and guaranteed to be as forgivably short-shrifted in story as it will be spellbindingly stylized. Similarly, every David Lynch movie comes with its own Tingler-like anticipatory charge, and so The Straight Story, with its Midwestern sweetness and G rating, promises to be more arresting still. (Of course, the import market is experiencing something like a Black Monday that will not end; if anything has a chance of balancing the scales, it's Almódovar.)

Second-guessing the strange nature of Jim Carrey doing Andy Kaufman in Milos Forman's Man on the Moon is thrillingly difficult as well; it can't be another The Joker Is Wild or Lenny by virtue of Carrey's own ambiguous relationship with fame, audiences, and TV, and because it was scripted by the same guys who made Ed Wood and Larry Flynt poignant sources of farce. Forman is just one selective expatriate stepping into the breach this season— Roman Polanski takes another shot at a supernatural thriller with The Ninth Gate, Lasse Hallstrom may come close to fulfilling the promise of What's Eating Gilbert Grape with his hopefully-not-too-epic version of The Cider House Rules, and Jane Campion emerges with the provocatively unlikely prospect of a cult deprogramming comedy, Holy Smoke.

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